TR2050 interviews Dr Finn Majlergaard: “Stop assuming you know your employee base and simply jumping to conclusions with Reward.”
Member Interview

The experienced consultant, professor and keynote speaker Dr Majlergaard talks about his focus on corporate culture and the role Reward can play to drive improvements.

Dr Finn Majlergaard well understands that feeling valued is more than just a high salary. In his mid-30s he walked away from the corporate world after over a decade of high-powered, generously-renumerated jobs to dedicate his life to doing things he found interesting and made him happy.

“There was so much focus on simply following procedures and not thinking for yourself,” he recalls of his time in the corporate hamster wheel. “And I constantly felt like someone was going to figure out I didn’t do or know nearly enough to earn the bucketloads of money they were paying me!”

Incidentally, the job almost killed him too. He suffered a serious heart attack due to stress and was left temporarily paralysed at the age of 34. It’s little wonder he made a drastic life change, quitting the world he realised that he was only working within “to try and live up to the expectations of society, of family, of my peers.”

Fortunately, he has emerged to drive for positive change in those same organisations. After earning himself a Masters degree and a Doctorate, he established his own consultancy over two decades ago to help companies define and strengthen their workplace culture. “More companies today are seriously damaged by not understanding the power of culture,” he says. “And culture is only going to become more crucial in the future.”

More than words on a screen

Workplace culture is a tricky area to operate in due to its ephemeral nature; employees can just feel when the culture is ‘right’. It’s becoming more important to get it right, Finn believes, because culture directly impacts retention, which is a growing issue for businesses.

“We’re already seeing a scarcity of resources in terms of employable people and it will only become more of an issue as demographics shift and the populations age.” Companies will need to promote a healthy culture if they want to compete in the market for staff.

But the consequences can reach far further than remaining competitive. Finn points to airline manufacturer Boeing as an example; independent investigations into the cause of the spate of aircraft malfunctions – and deaths – found that the working environment was toxic.

When it comes to identifying where a company is going wrong, Finn directs his clients’ attention to the exit interviews – “that’s the only time people will be completely honest about how they feel.” He also suggests that, generally, most businesses get culture wrong due to an excessive focus on meeting the needs of shareholders and “squeezing as much money as possible out of the company” rather than fostering a healthy, positive working environment.

In recent years, companies have gamely tried to focus on positive culture by creating company values or mission statements. “Values aren’t words on a screen or in a powerpoint presentation,” Finn dismisses. “Companies have to live it and feel their values. It’s in their actions and their decisions.”

He encourages companies to implement ‘cultural fit’ checks when interviewing for potential hires. “You can always teach people new skills, and you’ll have to as the world changes so fast and new tech pops up, but if they don’t fit with the culture, it’s never going to work out.”

Ultimately, he believes that companies are not prepared for the challenges that are coming as the new generation increasingly looks to the culture of a company when making their decisions on their career – and are more willing to move roles than was historically the case. “There is also a more global workforce than we ever had before and the demographics are shifting, so culture is only going to become more crucial to success.”

Lessons for Reward leaders

There are many lessons for Reward leaders here. Indeed, Reward faces similar challenges in trying to meet the needs and expectations of a changing, diverse global workforce.

“Reward has to become more individualistic, as it is starting to do already in some companies,” Finn explains, “but they don’t always get it right.” He mentions one example of a US company failing to consider the unique needs of its Asian workforce:

“An American hotel chain used the ‘employer of the month’ as part of their reward approach, putting a photo up of the best employer. In Asia, the staff hated that. They don’t like to be singled out and would do anything to avoid being the best! That approach to Reward doesn’t work because the culture and society is so different in Asia to the US.”

He warns that companies “can’t save money by trying to put people into boxes or create one solution for everyone. You need to take individualism into account so that you attract a wider range of people. Diversity is so important these days.”

Finn expects more Reward leaders to shift to systems that work in a similar way to airline loyalty schemes as a means of ensuring individualism is catered for:

“People will earn ‘points’ or such, these can then be redeemed for the rewards that are most valuable to them. A single mother may want more time at home, but a young unmarried person without children might want a bit more money. In my consultancy business, instead of giving someone a bonus, I paid for the lease on a car for her so she could get to work. That made the difference for her. That’s what Reward should be.”

The obstacles are many, including the tax regulations and laws across various countries. “There are also trade unions in certain countries that can be so reactive and resistant to changes,” he adds. “There’s a lot to contend with!”

Engaging with the future

For TR2050 Members with their eye on the future of Reward, Finn has some insight into what may be coming in the next two decades. Alongside his work with global corporations as a consultant, Finn also lectures around the world and relishes his continuous engagement with the younger generation. He also has two sons of his own – both in their thirties and running their own businesses.

His interactions with young people make him hopeful about the future because he believes he sees that their values are well-placed, with most seeking rewards beyond the money. This generation is also increasingly aware of culture and interested in seeking a company that ‘feels’ right for them.

Interesting, he doesn’t believe the biggest challenge in meeting the needs of a future workforce will be technology. “It’s demographics that will matter the most. Already we’ve got more older people working for longer, and there are lower birth rates, and people getting ill earlier in life with lifestyle-related conditions,” he says. All of this will need to be catered for and supported, while still finding viable and affordable ways to run a business.

“Always the challenge is trying to reward the most people with the least amount of money,” he says, “although most companies are already wasting a lot by getting it wrong. I think Reward leaders need to stop jumping to conclusions and stop pretending they know what their staff want. You have to start again, find out what really motivates them considering their culture, ethics, geography, age and everything. All of this needs to be embedded into the Reward system, now and in the future.”

Digitalisation is a scam

Finn’s views on technology as less transformative than many predict is unexpected for someone who operates a global consultancy from a remote French mountain village, but he is resistant to the relentless march towards tech-powered societies.

“Digitalisation is a scam,” he declares. “We have to resist this massive digitalisation of everything and recognise that lots of people still do and will continue to do jobs that are manual, that won’t be impacted at all by technology. You still need people to lay cables, build roads, cook food in restaurants.”

His thinking is influenced in part by his location: a Dane by birth, Finn has settled himself in small French community on the edge of a stunning national park. “A lot of people here don’t use the internet, they don’t need it, don’t want it,” he says. “That is despite the fact we have a high-speed fiber optic network connection here in our village – I use a 2Gb internet connection for my work.”

In France there is a national ‘movement’ to resist having to pay by card in shops, with people purposefully withdrawing money and paying in cash. “Some people don’t want digitalisation; they are not interested in simply jumping on the technology bandwagon just because it’s here and its possible.”

This viewpoint is evident in some of his students, too, which gives Finn the sense that there is no certainty when it comes to the future and technology’s role wirthin it. “I see the young people think differently. The new generation will change things – they are aware of what is important. My sons do not use social media, they run their own companies and make good money without relying on technology, so it could go in many directions in the future and that’s exciting!”

Aside from his paid work – in addition to consulting and lecturing, Finn has founded two start-ups, relying on social media to promote both – the remainder of life is determinedly un-digital. He loves to be out in nature, hiking in the mountains just outside his window and engaging with his local community.

“But I see the value of technology for my work and my work is fun,” he declares happily. It’s a heartening statement from a man who could have been killed by a job he hated thirty years ago. “Everyone should say work is fun – then you know you have the working culture correct.”

Find out more about Dr Majlergaard’s consultancy business Gugin on the company website, where a blog shares insightful articles around corporate culture. For his personal views and interests, he has a personal blog.

Share this insight with your network: